Illustration by David Gibson
Illustration by David Gibson

Returning last week from an instructive three weeks in Pakistan, I was detained briefly at Islamabad’s chaotic airport after an X-ray machine showed two highly suspicious music CDs and a USB memory stick in my check-in bag.

The music was of Mehdi Hassan, my favorite singer in South Asia, and the USB was part of a PR packet given to me by a Bangkok hotelier. It didn’t matter. For nearly three hours, two men in shalwar kameez -- members of one of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies -- supervised customs and immigration officials, and even the staff of my Middle Eastern airline, through an extensive scrutiny of my bags and the many visas in my passport.

These plainclothed, thuggish-looking men seemed to confirm the popular Western stereotype of Pakistan’s “deep state,” a vast subterranean network of soldiers, spies, and militants-for-hire that actually runs the country while the state fails to provide health care and education to a largely poor and illiterate population of nearly 190 million.

An Invisible Tumult

I had last visited Pakistan in 2009, just as a near-hysterical Western media was trumpeting that the Taliban was only 60 miles from Islamabad. In the years since then, the Taliban has plainly failed to overrun Pakistan. Still, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of the banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, on whom the U.S. government recently placed a bounty of $10 million, remains depressingly ubiquitous. His defiant and widely reported speeches could seem further proof of, if not rampant Talibanization, then the indispensability of extremists to Pakistan’s ruling classes.

However, I also saw much in this recent visit that did not conform to the main Western narrative for South Asia -- one in which India is steadily rising and Pakistan rapidly collapsing.

Born of certain geopolitical needs and exigencies, this vision was always most useful to those who have built up India as an investment destination and a strategic counterweight to China, and who have sought to bribe and cajole Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment into the war on terrorism.

Seen through the narrow lens of the West’s security and economic interests, the great internal contradictions and tumult within these two large nation-states disappear. In the Western view, the credit-fueled consumerism among the Indian middle class appears a much bigger phenomenon than the extraordinary Maoist uprising in Central India.

Likewise, a bloody anti-state insurgency has raged in Pakistan’s resource-rich Balochistan province for much of the previous decade; it has merited little attention since Western military objectives have been more directly at stake in other parts of Pakistan.

Traveling through Pakistan, I realized how much my own knowledge of the country -- its problems as well as prospects -- was partial, defective or simply useless. Certainly, truisms about the general state of crisis were not hard to corroborate. Criminal gangs shot rocket-propelled grenades at each other and the police in Karachi’s Lyari neighborhood. Shiite Hazaras were being assassinated in Balochistan every day. Street riots broke out in several places over severe power shortages -- indeed, the one sound that seemed to unite the country was the groan of diesel generators, helping the more affluent Pakistanis cope with early summer heat.

Gangsters with Kalashnikovs

In this eternally air-conditioned Pakistan, meanwhile, there exist fashion shows, rock bands, literary festivals, internationally prominent writers, Oscar-winning filmmakers and the bold anchors of a lively new electronic media. This is the glamorously liberal country upheld by English-speaking Pakistanis fretting about their national image in the West (some of them might have been gratified by the runaway success of Hello magazine’s first Pakistani edition last week).

But much less conspicuous and more significant, other signs of a society in rapid socioeconomic and political transition abounded. The elected parliament is about to complete its five-year term -- a rare event in Pakistan -- and its amendments to the constitution have taken away some if not all of the near-despotic prerogatives of the president’s office.

Political parties are scrambling to take advantage of the strengthening ethno-linguistic movements for provincial autonomy in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Young men and women, poor as well as upper middle class, have suddenly buoyed the anti-corruption campaign led by Imran Khan, an ex-cricketer turned politician.

After radically increasing the size of the consumerist middle class to 30 million, Pakistan’s formal economy, which grew only 2.4 percent in 2011, currently presents a dismal picture. But the informal sector of the economy, which spreads across rural and urban areas, is creating what the architect and social scientist Arif Hasan calls Pakistan’s “unplanned revolution.” Karachi, where a mall of Dubai-grossness recently erupted near the city’s main beach, now boasts “a first world economy and sociology, but with a third world wage and political structure.”

Even in Lyari, Karachi’s diseased old heart, where young gangsters with Kalashnikovs lurked in the alleys, billboards vended quick proficiency in information technology and the English language. Everywhere, in the Salt Range in northwestern Punjab as well as the long corridor between Lahore and Islamabad, were gated housing colonies, private colleges, fast-food restaurants and other markers of Pakistan’s breakneck suburbanization.

None of these developments conform to a clear pattern of linear movement -- ascent to greatness or descent into chaos -- popularized by recent accounts of South Asia, which rest on simple-minded notions about Europe and the U.S.’s deeply traumatic experience of nation-building.

The unplanned revolution can come grievously unstuck if Pakistan’s economy fails to generate enough jobs for the country’s overwhelmingly youthful population. The few unbiased commentators on Pakistan’s new television channels seem outnumbered by the crazed zealots peddling visions of Hindu and Jewish malevolence. A campaign against corruption in public life may alert millions of young Pakistanis to the possibility of participatory democracy; it may also turn them into foot soldiers of an anti-political and authoritarian populism.

Clearly, Pakistan won’t easily escape the consequences of the delusions and follies of its security establishment and its foreign patrons. The suicide attacks that killed thousands of Pakistanis in recent years have decreased. But the army, though overstretched and exhausted by the war on terrorism and increasingly challenged by politicians and the news media, still seems far from giving up its proprietary rights over Pakistan’s politics and economy.

Old habits will die hard -- as indicated by the intelligence agents trying to decipher my notebook. But they may grow obsolete and futile first: Mechanically sifting through my faded credit card receipts and weeks-old laundry, the spooks conveyed little conviction or even ordinary efficiency. When I confronted one of them, demanding to know his name and employers, he scurried away.

His “deep state” seemed a bit shallow then. In any case, as Indonesia, Turkey and, most recently, Egypt and Tunisia have proved, deep states, however cannily structured, can no longer bottle up political pressures created by globalized economies, modern communications and raised expectations.

Sustained by powerful Pakistanis, demagogues such as Hafiz Saeed and many other plump-cheeked professional jihadis and anti-Shiite bigots will continue to present a disagreeable face of Pakistan to the world. But their frenetic attempts at political alliance-building reveal that they, too, are struggling to stay relevant in a rapidly changing society.

Foreign policy makers and commentators -- especially those for whom the Taliban are forever 60 miles away from Islamabad -- would do well to recognize this ferment of Pakistan, even if they can’t yet assess its scale and complexity.

(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.